beware numbers and noise

All images in this post by J.

Almost every weekend there is a run/race event or two, sponsored by a corporation, a cause or even a cartoon character. At the Toa Payoh sports centre this Saturday, the stadium was hosting a sports events, so was the swimming pool. At the Toa Payoh HDB hub, there is another organised activity - in anticipation of Singapore's 50th birthday next year. On average per day, according to official statistics, there are some 70 arts performances and exhibitions - big or small - taking place. 

There is a fear, I think, of silence and stillness.

The races provide a goal - a definite finishing line. For some it is about strength and speed, and for some, endurance. A number helps define these limits. It is clear. We can achieve. 

The events, be it official or commercial, even artistic, generate activity. It generates "vibrancy" for a city, whose populace and visitors can be entertained and stimulated and fed. The marketing tells us we are missing out if we do not attend to this abundance, this (over)exuberance of life. We can consume.

There is comfort in the numbers. And in noise.

I must be careful, I tell myself, not to be lured by the numbers and the noise. 

The arts can be celebratory. The arts can entertain. The arts can soothe and heal. The arts can, arguably, even be counted. But we miss the point and deny its real power when we deny its silence and stillness - even in the loudest of celebrations. A painting or sculpture or photograph demands that we stand before it, even if for a moment, in stillness.  Music when performed asks that we listen. A dance, even in all its movement, asks for a certain stillness in entering the dance. A book invites us to first sit and read. A film pulls us into its frame of light amid the still darkness.

J's found art - pineapple sculpture Ong Lai Liao! 

A society that allows for the silence and stillness of the arts encourages its members and citizens to appreciate and care for the eternal around them - be it compassion for another, the beauty of sunlight, the community in a shared footpath. 

I struggle if eternal is the right word. Art is not my god after all. But it seems to me the closest word I can find to counter in the extreme this tyranny of speed, noise - and numbers. The eternal defies time, sound and arithmetic.

Friday evening as I left the office and popped by the outdoor theatre Esplanade, I bumped into O, a choreographer whose training is in Malay dance. He has organised an annual festival that gathers Malay dance practitioners in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in a series of free performances over the weekend at the Esplanade's outdoor theatre and concourse stage. 

There were crowds at both venues. And I found myself tempted to count their numbers! The office air was still in my lungs. Until of course the music, the banter and the faces of people who stopped to listen distracted me. It was far more rewarding than counting.

O and I chatted for a few minutes. It must have been more than a year since I last saw him. I congratulated him on pulling all this together. He explained to me why he felt he had to do it. I asked about his intention to revisit the choreography of our earliest Malay dance groups. 

He said he was watching all his young dancers and how their bodies moved. Their speed. It was alright, he qualified, and quite good, their new moves. But he wanted to introduce to them a language that was slower - it had more - he struggled for the right word... Grace, I ventured to add. Yes, grace and strength, he said.  It was easy for the young, we agreed, to think less of movements that were slow and graceful, not understanding that it required more control and strength.

We need the arts and artists like O to play to a village or a city its music and dance, and to teach its young about grace, control and strength. And to not always hold against them the measure of numbers and noise - but allow them and ourselves the chance of stillness and silence. 


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